Justice: A foreboding word

I have recently been reading the book, The Good News About Injustice, written by International Justice Missions (IJM) founder, Gary Haugen. Gary is really popular for his TEDTalk about violence, especially in a development context. IJM was started on the premise that although there was a lot of work being done to alleviate poverty and improve the standard of living in many developing countries, there was nothing being done about the injustices that would torment these communities. There was nothing being done to shut down local drug cartels, or child prostitution rings, or saving children from torturous labour. The authorities in such places cannot be trusted as they are often major stakeholders or friendly with those who run such enterprises. Needless to say, the work that IJM does and Gary’s vision is an incredible inspiration – and this book boldly declares the biblical mandate IJM believe their work is based on.

It is funny that, in my experience, there does seem to be an inexplicable division or taboo-like nature to using the phrase ‘social justice’ within certain Christian circles. Especially in a country, such as Australia, where Christians seem to have become incredibly comfortable at being able to publicly announce how they feel on issues such as abortion, or marriage before sex, same-sex marriage – issues that could be classified as pertaining to ‘personal morality’. The picture I am trying to create is not that Christians disagree with all issues that the contemporary ‘social justice’ banner now encompasses – rather, they just do not like using ‘social justice’ language, or perhaps are apprehensive about it as it is being used by so many other causes that have not been endorsed by their church, or Christian political groups. Further, in recent times, causes that fly the flag of ‘social justice’ appear to be movements antagonistic to the church, arguably, at fundamental levels.

This is somewhat saddening. It is incredibly important for Christians to understand the language of ‘justice’ and how it affects the mission of the Church. Do not misunderstand – issues of personal morality are incredibly important. However, we must remember issues of social justice are just as important. For example, we have come to our views on pro-life through solid theological interpretation – there is no express term in the Bible that prohibits abortion. However, the Bible is so full of references to the Lord as a God of justice, who loves justice – one only has to read the Old Testament prophets to see that they are bursting with this God of Justice. Furthermore, is God not a God of both righteousness and justice? Even the Hebrew word for justice, mishpat, denotes both justice and righteousness. You cannot have one without the other.

Admittedly, the New Testament does not read in the same manner. However, God was the same as he is today, and always will be. Most importantly, Jesus exemplified God’s perfect justice in his ministry. Jesus claimed that he came to fulfil the Law – which was there to show the minimum standard of righteousness and just living. But Jesus had come, not just as an answer to prophecy, but as a living breathing example of God’s will. Law not of stone, but of flesh.

At this point, I am unsure of the history that has led to such an apprehension towards talks of ‘justice’ in parts of the church. Perhaps it was a reaction to love-less preaching of judgement and damnation. But digging deeper into God’s justice shows it is one inspired by love and compassion. Perhaps it is because once one accepts God as a God of justice, they have to realise a world of injustice, which is often quite an overwhelming experience. But God and the Bible also offer great joy and promise to defeat injustice, so we must take heart and overcome our paralysis. I hope to be able to explore these concepts further. But whatever the reason, it remains important that this generation becomes interested in ‘justice’. The public sphere in Western Democracies is no longer going to be a comfortable place for Christian rhetoric. And so be it. If it means exploring a part of God’s character with a little more intention; if it means seeking Jesus and emodying his love with a little more zeal – so be it.

This space will be a place where I will try to unravel the circular conversations that happen in my head in regards to ‘justice’. I am convinced that, as Christians, we are not particularly good at having these conversations – and that just does not add up when we remember we have been equipped with a mandate to serve all people the way that Jesus did – which includes embodying God’s justice. You will hear more from Gary Haugen and other excellent thinkers who are helping me on this journey, including a few prophets, apostles, and more than likely, Jesus as well (probably important to include him).

It is my hope, simply, to start (or rather, get my head around) the dialogue. Because I definitely do not have the answers. I acknowledge that this may not be everyone’s cup of tea – but I will endeavour to talk about it in an accessible, honest, spirit and truth filled way. In our musings– whether with others, by ourselves, or with our computer screens as we write our two cents on these subjects—may we always edify the church and exalt God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Welcome to my journey with Justice.

The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse – Ch. 1 “The Way We Talk Now”

Steven D. Smith, 2010

A commitment to reason

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But why would someone agree to bracket her most fundamental convictions about what is true in “reasoning” about important public matters? She would do this, Rawls explains, if and because she is “reasonable”– meaning that in a situation of pluralism she understands that no one’s truth is going to prevail over its rivals, and so rather than seeking to ground public decisions in truth she is “ready to propose principles and standards as fair terms of cooperation and to abide by them willingly, given the assurance that others will likewise do so.” Far from being an exercise of Reason, “reasonableness” reflects a willingness, in the interest of civil peace, to rein in that potentially disruptive faculty.

In short, in the eighteenth century, a commitment to reason denoted a willingness to pursue the truth and to follow the argument wherever it leads, with the confidence that reason will ultimately lead people to converge on the truth. In contemporary political liberalism, in stark contrast, “reasonableness” denotes a willingness not to pursue or invoke for vital public purposes what one believes to be the ultimate truth – a willingness based on the judgement that reason will not lead to convergence but will instead subvert a civic peace that can be maintained only if people agree not to make important public decisions on the basis of arguing about what is ultimately true.

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Rawls attempts to finesse this daunting problem by simply stipulating that an “essential feature of public reason is that its political conceptions should be complete.” Under this stipulation, “public reason” is by definition adequate to “give a reasonable answer to all, or to nearly all, questions involving constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice”: a discourse lacking such complete-ness, it seems, would not qualify as a form of “public reason.”

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Now, though, instead of laying principal blame on poor schools or profit-driven media or evangelical religion, ,we can notice the way in which shallowness in discourse is actually prescribed by some of the most influential political thought of our time (because Rawls was only the most prominent in a whole family of like-minded theorists.) It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the very point of “public reason” is to keep public discourse shallow – to keep it from drowning in the perilous depths of questions about “the nature of the universe,” or the end and the object of life,” or other tenets of our comprehensive doctrines. And that prescription, as we have seen, is in turn the product of a general loss of confidence in the capacity of reason to actually lead people to truth in such matters. “You have your opinions and I have mine,” we are wont to think, “and nothing in our so-called ‘reasoning’ is likely to change our minds.”

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Max Weber famously described the change as the “disenchantment of the world”; he sometimes spoke of modernity as an “iron cage,” in which life is lived and discourse is conducted according o the stern constraints of secular rationalism. It is that cage – the cage of secular discourse – within which public conversation and especially judicial and academic discourse occurs today. 

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…when we attempt to engage in reasoning about vital normative concerns, our performances turn out to be a pretty shabby and unsatisfactory affair. So unsatisfactory, in fact, that many people eventually conclude that there is little point in pretending to participate in the enterprise at all–an enterprise that often looks like an exercise in inventing, as F.H. Bradley put it, “bad reasons for what [we] believe on instinct.”

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Our modern secular vocabulary purports to render inadmissible notions such as those that animated premodern social discourse – notions about a purposive cosmos, or a teleological nature stocked with Aristotelian “final causes,” or a providential design. But if our deepest convictions rely on such notions, and if these convictiosn lose their sense and substance when divorced from such notions, then perhaps we have little choice except to smuggle such notions into the conversation – to introduce them incognito under some sort of secular disguise.

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Even so, corruption is still less than ideal. So it in our current circumstances, we have little choice but to put up with smuggling (and, perhaps, to throw our support behind the benign smugglers rather than the malign or misguided ones), we ought at least to retain some awareness of what is going on.

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Smuggling implies that an argument is tacitly importing something that is left hidden or unacknowledged– some undisclosed assumption or premise. But relying on an unacknowledged premise of belief is not in itself enough to constitute smuggling, because all discourse does that, and could hardly do otherwise.

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That criticism, once again, is that the secular vocabulary within which public discourse is constrained to operate today is insufficient to convey our full set of normative convictions and commitments. We manage to debate normative matters anyway– but only by smuggling in notions that are officially inadmissible, and hence that cannot be openly acknowledged or adverted to. The pervasiveness of smuggling allows our conversation to be less pointless or ineffectual than they might be. But the fact that we must smuggle in, and hence cannot fully own up to, our real commitments– often cannot articulate them even to ourselves — ensures that our discourse will often be barren, unsatisfying, and shallow in ways that critics like Jacoby and Dworkin say it is.

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Reflections for paper

Want to be able to break cage of secular discourse when talking about ideas of justice.